Artists and scientists: Why Collaborate?

I’m not an artist. At least by the definition of an artist as a person engaged in an activity related to creating art, practising the arts, or demonstrating an art. My interest in the arts started when I was about 12 years old. I was impressed by the shoplifting techniques I saw on TV and decided to try it out for myself. I put on a jacket, and went to Rhythm House, the closest and really only big music store in Mumbai at the time (i.e.,1994). I picked four blank tapes — two I paid for and two I slipped into my jacket pocket.

Unfortunately, I was caught, had to return the tapes that I stole, and cried my way out of them not calling my parents. For the next few years, whenever we headed there with friends, I didn’t dare to go back in — for the fear that my face was plastered on their wall as a thief! Instead, I went to the art galleries in the area, appreciating in my own illiterate way — all the expression of life and love and despair in paint, photographs, film, and sculpture — and thus began my love affair with the arts.

I’ve always been drawn to the unknown. It’s also why I learn and teach physics and astronomy. But my love affair with science has been diminishing, largely because I have grown unimpressed by its limits in knowing:

The Ends of Evidence by Tynan DeBold for Quanta Magazine

Instead I’ve been wondering how this wonderful enterprise can reinvent itself to include more ways of knowing and validating knowledge. To find out, I decided to turn back, and look into the arts — go back to Rhythm House — for inspiration, for opening up.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that scientists and artists aren’t so different, and more collaborations can bear significant fruit. But there’s work to be done to make it all possible.

Artists and scientists not so different, you say?

Both ask questions and seek answers

Artists and scientists are both trained in inquiry and questioning. I’ve never met a non-curious young scientist, neither have I ever met a non-curious young artist. They have a zeal for discovery and constantly seek new ways to explore their questions.

While scientists tend to put themselves outside their methods (more objective), artists tend to put themselves inside their methods (more subjective).

The difference between objective and subjective only comes from the frame of reference — that is the line we are drawing around a system to study it.

Both build metaphors and conceptual understandings of the world

Some of the thinking tools that artists and scientists share, derived from autobiographical material and interviews with highly creative scientists and artists. © Robert Root-Bernstein, 2009

Artists and scientists share similar cognitive processes. Metaphors, in particular, are a tool that both use to speak about abstract concepts. Speaking about our large large large, 91 billion light-years across, universe is no easy conceptual task, neither is uncovering the deepest of our fears. A metaphorical language needs to be developed to communicate ideas.

Both think about reproducibility

While scientific output needs to be unique and reproducible, artistic output has higher value if it can’t be reproduced! So they both need to think about reproducibility, a lot, but in different ways.

Both are well acquainted with failure and neither fear the unknown

Experimentation is key to being both an artist and a scientist. Risk is part and parcel of the job. Both artists and scientists often delve into questions of knowing either through senses or through instruments where senses fail. They are attracted by the unknown.

Both welcome being critical and criticism

‘Peer review’ is a part of the scientific process, and critical theory or critical making is part of a number of artistic processes, and ‘art critics’ is a thing. Most people unfamiliar with scientific and artistic practices perceive scientists to be trained critical thinkers, but artists not. From my personal experience with both artists and scientists, I find the art-school artists I’ve met, both Indian and International, to be way better skilled in critical thinking than the science-school scientists I’ve met, both Indian and International.

Both are often called crazy

Scientists and artists are often caricatured as odd individuals. Their work is to challenge the status quo and think the unthinkable. If crazy means going where no human has gone before, in thought or action, then I guess they are a bit crazy indeed, and have earned their reputation.

Essentially the same, conceptually different.

Given their similarities, there is enough ground to work together. Here’s why they should.

ArtScience is a synthesis aimed at stimulating discussion about the numerous ways in which art and science intersect. Here’s why the two cultures should collaborate

“ArtScience enables us to achieve a more complete and universal understanding of things.” — ArtScience Manifesto

New modes of public communication and engagement

Artists serve as great partners in the communication of scientific knowledge, and can at the same time raise fundamental questions on the connection between this knowledge and the human experience.

Evolution of the Stars was a site-specific project presented during The Story of Space Festival by the Polish ArtScience group Instytut B61. It consisted of thirteen audio-visual installations that told the story of the life and death of stars, and the place of the human in the universe. Their speciality is the creation of metaphors.

Evolution of the Stars / © Instytut B61
Lighting the Way / CC-BY-A-NC The Story Of Foundation

Artists can also collaborate with scientists to raise awareness on a particular scientific result that can help change society. In Lighting the Way developed at The Story of Light festival, scientist Divya Karnad collaborated with artist and designer Waylon James D’Souza. Together they created a maze experience to highlight the idea that turtles don’t see red but see blue, so if there does need to be light around beachfronts, keep them red and dim. An important result to be shared with the public in Goa considering the development of the coast.

New ways of producing

With advances in science and technology come advances in art. Due to its densely packed, carbon nanotubes, VantaBlack® paint has a unique ability to absorb 99,96 % of light that hits its surface. By absorbing the light the world’s blackest black substance creates an illusion of no depth and conveys the notion of looking directly into a void or a black hole. Asif Khan uses vantablack VBx2 to create ‘the darkest building on Earth. It’s gonna be an illusion trip!

(Left) Vantablack © Surrey NanoSystem (Right) asif khan’s ‘The darkest building on Earth’ © Luke Hayes

Things with technology and art have moved so far we now have a new generation of machine learning and coder-artists like Gene Kogan, creating all kinds of interactive experiences like this one at The Story of Light festival.

Story of Light / © Gene Kogan

New ways of knowing and thinking

In the age of the anthropocene, we are in need of new ways of thinking to solve the challenges of both today and tomorrow. Stimulating dialogue and action between the two cultures can lead to new ways of thinking. If art is the thesis, and science is the anti-thesis, then its time for synthesis. Nora Vaage’s paper suggests that a careful restructuring of pedagogy will allow third culture of interdisciplinary collaboration to emerge. A level of complementary thinking needs to develop from the offset.

Conservation is a field that could benefit from different approaches and thinking about our relationship to Earth. ‘Conservation is a story of space’ was a collaboration between Dr. Coralie D’Lima (interdisciplinary scientist) and Dr. Prafulata Rajput (dancer and Ayurvedic doctor) who told the story of conservation from two very different perspectives to stimulate new ways of thinking. One looks at how nature is considered as something ‘other’ than us, and the other as a ‘part’ of us.

Conservation is a story of space / CC-BY-A-NC The Story Of Foundation.

New understanding of materials

With an explosion in biotechnology, artists are routinely called upon to provide new understandings of materials. Artist Heather Barnett gave much direction to scientists through her experiments with biological design and self-organizing systems.

Heather Barnett: What humans can learn from semi-intelligent slime

The lab is a garden, and the bioartist is the gardener for the new millennium. — Stephanie Walden

Artists are also involved in speculating about what the future will look like — especially since living on Mars became a hot topic. We need all the imagination. We also need to throw some philosophers into the Mars mix to question the ethics of how things are going to go down.

New modes of learning

Should introspection and reflection be a part of the scientific process? They are such important parts of any learning process — and a tool often used by artists. Science and art can also come together to create completely new interdisciplinary learning experiences.

Ex nihilio, which means creation out of nothing, is a mobile scientific escape room made by Ran Peleg (science educator), Claudia Sodini (performance artist and educator), and Abrar Burk (interactive designer). At The Story of Space festival, groups of participants were invited to begin by carefully examining a box to discover a clue. This clue led to another clue, and so on, until what seemed to be an empty space revealed hidden energies — light and sound — which though invisible, are always present, and proved to be the key to solving the clues. The idea behind this game was to inspire people to investigate the space around them using everyday technologies. It served as an excellent tool to learn about light and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Ex nihilio / © Claudia Sodini

When Things Could Fall Apart

Very rarely do collaborations take off without obstacles. But if fear were to inhibit invention, some of the best creations in the world would not have happened. Even though the ArtScience Manifesto emits an aura of opportunity to the future of humanity and society, the unhindered materialisation of such collaboration comes with a set of problems to be overcome.

Undermining the other

A recurring impediment to a successful ArtScience collaboration is to compartmentalise one’s abilities and limitations. This happens because both artists and scientists are specialists. Ken Perlin, a professor of computer science at New York University, chooses to identify as a researcher, rendering the labels of “artist” and “scientist” as irrelevant. To stay open, both artists and scientists must be committed to understanding their ego.

Not enough done to develop a common language

It takes time and commitment to create a common language for communication, both personal and technical. Sometimes years need to be spent understanding another’s point of view for change to happen. A culture of mutual trust and respect is as key as it gets to get the two or more to want to see the other’s point of view and way of working.

Not enough political stimulation and interdisciplinary grants

Try as they may to collaborate, bigger solutions need bigger investments. Recurring budgetary cuts are consistently directed towards both the arts and science sectors. To make interdisciplinary studies and research happen, politicians have to get on board! Also because of the specialist ways in which grants are structured, an application to either institute usually excludes the other. These grants also need to be a bit high risk, because collaborations need to stay open to failure.

Many organizations and labs around the world are stimulating interdisciplinary spaces, going beyond just art and science.

Having art and science intersect is a chance to give birth to a third culture — with new ways of knowing, thinking, creating and connecting in the 21st century. Let’s make it happen!

Special thanks to Noel Mark Sequeira for the first version of this article.



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Jaya Ramchandani (جيا رامچَندانِ)

Jaya Ramchandani (جيا رامچَندانِ)

Creating courses & curricula and mentoring high school students (astronomy, physics, science & art, learning how to learn, scientific communication)